Mobilizing Community Conversations in Vermont

High school can be a time of great challenge, transition and triumph for teenagers. Social groups are formed and disbanded, students are challenged in new ways by their teachers and by their peers, and there is a great deal of pressure to think about the future. And in order to successfully finish this high school journey, students must complete a standard curriculum that has no regard for their style or pace of learning in order to graduate.

In our current K-12 system, too often students move to the next grade after showing only a minimal grasp of subject matter. Their promotion is driven not by their knowledge, but instead by semesters in a school calendar. Decades of scientific research and our common experiences tell us that people grow, develop and learn at different paces. Despite this evidence, we move students ahead regardless of their true skill level, and then ask them to build more advanced learning on these shaky foundations.

A one-size-fits-all school model shouldn't add to the challenges and pressures students feel at such a critical time in their lives. At Nellie Mae, we believe strongly that education should be student-centered and driven not by the calendar but instead by a student's competency level in a particular subject. To implement this systemic change to education, we've supported communities across New England who hold the same philosophy. One of these groups, Partnership for Change, has enlisted broad community support to remodel public education in their communities of Burlington and Winooski, Vermont.

The multi-stakeholder group was founded last year with a grant from NMEF's $16.4 million District Level Systems Change (DLSC) initiative to implement, sustain and build demand for student-centered approaches to learning.

The district knew that to effect true change, they would first need the support of the Burlington and Winooksi communities, so their focus during the first stage of their project has been on a widespread effort to get the word out about their goals, and why changing the system is so important.

To support a transparent district transformation process, school officials in Burlington and Winooski invited students and families to join the Partnership's core decision-making body. It was only the beginning of a productive engagement with the community to redefine -- by consensus -- what it means to be a proficient high school graduate in Burlington and Winooski, prepared for the next phase in life.

For the past several months, Partnership for Change has hosted a series of neighborhood-based 'Learning Conversations' to introduce the core concepts behind student-centered learning and to solicit input. From living rooms to community spaces, all participants are asked one question -- "What do our graduates need to know and be able to do in order to be successful in today's rapidly changing and complex world?"

This winter, the Partnership posed the same question to 300 parents, educators, and business leaders who turned out for the first community-wide event. This diverse group of stakeholders dedicated a full Saturday afternoon to discussing the skills and knowledge our young people need to thrive, and how their schools can better help them succeed. The feedback from these events will inform the work that is already underway to develop graduation expectations and proficiencies to help assess student progress more accurately.

As the Partnership continues to gather feedback and circulate plans, the community effort under way in Burlington and Winooski serves one example of how systemic change can benefit an entire community. Students graduate better prepared for college, career and life, which strengthens the community, building more engaged and prepared citizenry.